Projecting into Lake Michigan off 55th Street in Chicago was a man-made land-filled area that was called “The Point.” It was a place for people to walk and wander on a spring or summer day and was a popular picnic area.
It also provided those of us who had dogs the opportunity to let our gentle friends get in a little exercise, although this was a strict violation of I don’t know how many city ordinances. This was at a time before anyone had thought of the concept of parks in cities specifically designed for these furry companions.
There were two ways to get to The Point. The first was by a metal bridge on 57th Street which took the sojourner safely up and over the traffic that flew down South Shore Drive. That was actually the more convenient way for me to go.
But as my dogs got older, I was concerned that they were putting excess strain on their leg joints and they always seemed to want to go down the stairs in a hurry – as though to get the experience over with. I could see myself flying down these stairs either head over heels or, at the least, inelegantly seated on my rear.
So we began using the 55th Street tunnel entrance. This ran under South Shore Drive and while there was no fear of falling down twenty metal stairs it also had some drawbacks.
First, there was always water which had extruded from Lake Michigan on the floor of the tunnel.
Second, it was extremely poorly lit with just a few small incandescent bulbs on either side illuminating the way. This proved to be particularly dangerous at night when we discovered that it was a favorite venue for drug deals and one rape.
Third, the only bathroom facility that was near was on The Point itself – but it was much closer to the Lake Michigan side than it was to the street. As a result, people who had planned poorly on attending to their needs had obviously used its relative seclusion for that purpose as the odor that filled the tunnel attested.
We learned to hold our breath, walk quickly and try to avoid liquid of any description that was in our path. And when we returned home, I always had a bowl of warm water and clean towels at the back door to wipe my dogs’ paws.
One day, much to everyone’s surprise, the City had decided to do repair work to the tunnel. The reason for the surprise was that those of us who lived in Chicago’s 5th Ward had elected and continued to re-elect the only “Independent” of the City Council’s fifty members, Alderman Leon M. Despres.
The Alderman frequently got into heated debates with then Mayor Richard J. Daley. One time while Alderman Despres was speaking, Daley turned off the Alderman’s microphone and continued with the agenda for the meeting that Daley had planned.
Daley was famous for his verbal gaffes, e.g., “Da police is not heah to create disorda. Da police is heah to preserve disorda” – uttered during the bashing of protestors outside the 1968 Democratic Convention held in Chicago. I mention this to give you a sense of the man’s views. He could no more be classified as a radical liberal than President Obama could be construed as an ardent capitalist.
Although it was not “official policy” it was very obvious that the City, at the Mayor’s behest, left the 5th Ward at the bottom of the list when it came to making improvements. While I’m sure that Daley’s sense of empathy towards Hispanics revolved around their turning out at the polls and little more – even the poor Hispanic wards got more attention and more benefit from the city than we did.
Well, for whatever reason, the decision had been made and our tunnel to The Point was to be refurbished. The rehab took a little over two months but the city did a really great job.
They replaced the old lighting with fixtures and bulbs that threw far more illiumination; they scrubbed the sides of the tunnel removing all the graffiti that had been painted on them over decades; and they replaced the pavement in such a way that Lake Michigan had to find other places into which it could seep. Going to The Point was even more fun – especially since it had become much less of a health and safety hazard.
Several months after the tunnel was re-opened, I was walking Tristan and Josh on a beautiful Saturday morning. As we went into the tunnel there was a new piece of graffiti which had been added. The author must have had a large budget for spray paint as he or she had written this large piece using violet, yellow, green, blue, orange and red paint. It read:
“I can’t help it! I just can’t help it! I know that Richard J.’s watching me. The mayor is watching every move I make. And it’s starting to make me feel paranoid!!!”
I remember guffawing as I read this, my voice echoing within the tunnel. I remember Tristan and Josh looking at me as though they were thinking, “our human’s gone loco.” The reason for my laughter was that the first thought that came to my mind was that Alderman Despres had an artistic side which he had expressed on the walls of the tunnel.
But then as I thought about it I dismissed the idea. The Alderman was too intelligent and too classy a person ever to deface public property. He was a man of sincere belief and conviction. He was a visionary and must have been extremely brave to survive all the 49-1 votes he endured during his career representing us.
Alderman Despres passed away in 2009 at the age of 101. He never wavered from his principles or his heart-felt beliefs. He was not a politician but was a statesman.
America could sure use people of his caliber now.